The Supreme Court is preparing to weigh in on a landmark free speech case that raises crucial questions about the First Amendment in the age of the Internet.
The high court next week will sit down to decide whether or not police need to prove that people posting threats online actually intend to carry them out.
Free speech groups warned ahead of Monday morning’s arguments that a ruling in favor of the government “runs the risk of punishing protected First Amendment expression simply because it is crudely or zealously expressed.”
“As more and more speech moves onto the Internet, the constitutional protections afforded to online speech will increasingly determine the actual scope of First Amendment freedoms enjoyed by our society,” the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology and other organizations warned in a friend-of-the-court brief.
The court needs to determine that intention matters, they added, “to ensure that protected online speech is neither punished nor chilled.”
The case centers on Anthony Elonis, who posted a number of violent, expletive-laden Facebook messages after he and his wife, Tara, separated.
In one, he asked if her court protection order was “thick enough to stop a bullet.” In another, he expressed regret for not smothering her with a pillow, dropping her off in a creek and making it “look like a rape and murder.”
After the split, Elonis was fired from his job at an Allentown, Pa., amusement park over a post that some of his coworkers took to be a threat against them.
He was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison for the threats. But Elonis says that the rants are essentially harmless and were intended to be raps in the style of Eminem or the Odd Future rap collective.
One post urging his sister-in-law to dress up his children as “matricide” on Halloween, for example, was accompanied by an emoticon of a face sticking its tongue out, his lawyers noted, “which he understood to be an indication a post is meant in jest.”